Every college basketball season starts with more questions than answers. With the University of Memphis opening its 2006-07 campaign Thursday night (against Jackson State at FedExForum), here are five early answers.
• What kind of carry-over can we expect from last season’s 33-4 performance? How about zippo? Nada. The old goose-egg factor. The U of M enjoyed its finest season in more than a decade in 2005-06, but the style and flavor of this year’s team could hardly be more different. With the departure of three stars, the team has lost 53 percent of last year’s scoring. Rodney Carney (an All-American), Shawne Williams (C-USA’s Freshman of the Year), and Darius Washington were John Calipari’s first three options on offense a year ago, leaving Chris Douglas-Roberts as the top veteran scoring threat. Add to all this a freshman point guard Bolivar’s Willie Kemp establishing a tempo to his liking and you have some growing pains certain to bite before conference play begins in January. So raise the C-USA championship banner from a year ago, toast the Elite Eight appearance one last time. And move on to a new season and new team.
• Who will be the leader of the the 2006-07 team? Washington’s departure will leave more of an intangible void than it will on the floor. Rodney Carney was a brilliant four-year(!) star, but he was as quiet as a church mouse after the opening-tip. Shawne Williams, alas, might have grown into a leader, but he’ll have to do that now as an Indiana Pacer. Sophomore guard Antonio Anderson has the demeanor of a floor leader, if not the position. Look for Andre Allen to point the way for this year’s squad, even if he’s coming off the bench for the precocious Kemp. Emotion counts for a lot in college hoops. Washington, as all of Tiger Nation remembers so well, wore emotion like Superman’s cape. When chests need punching this winter, the fist will likely be that of Andre Allen.
• What is John Calipari’s agenda? All those North Carolina State rumors last spring certainly didn’t hurt the sale tag for Conference USA’s highest profile. Entering his seventh year in charge of the Memphis program, Calipari has six 20-win seasons, an NIT championship, an NCAA regional final, two conference players of the year, and four conference freshmen of the year under his belt. So what’s left to prove? Calipari’s been given everything he’s asked for at the U of M, so it’s easy to understand a comfort zone, even as far from his native northeast as the 47-year-old coach may be. And with the Final Four within sniffing distance just last spring, Calipari’s mission of making Memphis a “national program” is being realized. The U of M will not be John Calipari’s last coaching job. But for now, if it ain’t broke . . .
• Who might surprise us this winter? Regardless of their prep credentials, freshmen are unknown variables, so we’ll scratch Kemp, Hashim Bailey, and Pierre Niles off this list. But keep an eye on Robert Dozier. Among the five ballyhooed freshmen who arrived on campus a year ago, Dozier brought the least fanfare. But he developed into a major contributor off the bench, with his rebounding skills and, considering his size, nice offensive touch. He’s the kind of player who will never be your star of the game, but when you check the stat sheet, it’s 12 points and eight rebounds, one night after another. It’s not unreasonable to consider Dozier an all-conference candidate.
• Which player can the Tigers not win without? Joey Dorsey. A true center is the rarest commodity in college basketball today. A player with size and strength, a shot blocker on defense, more comfortable on the blocks with his back to the basket on offense. That’s Joey Dorsey, folks, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t aspire for all-conference honors this season. Late last season, after a win over a game UTEP team at home, Calipari said the following: “You’ve got to learn to play when guys are bumping and grinding, if you really want to do something unique. Every team we play is going to get rougher, and more desperate.” If there is such a thing as a Calipari mantra, “Play Tough” is it. No one will provide more toughness for the 2006-07 squad than their 6’9,” 260-pound junior from Baltimore.